Prambanan Bas-Reliefs

Ramayana Bas-Relief - Rama, Sita and Lakshmana leaving Ayodhya for exile

Exquisitely carved bas-reliefs

Prambanan is a massive Hindu temple complex (also known as Rara Jonggrang complex) located 11 miles northeast of Yogyakarta in Indonesia. Built around 900 CE, this complex contains multiple temples dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses. Carved into the walls of these temples are the beautiful bas-reliefs that depict scenes narrated in the Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Puranas. Most of the bas-reliefs are very detailed, and because of that, the stories they represent are easily identifiable.

Ramayana bas-reliefs

The bas-reliefs depicting stories from Ramayana are carved into the inner walls of the balustrade of the corridor surrounding the inner sanctum of the Shiva and Brahma Temples. Not all bas-reliefs are in the right order, and in some cases, wrong bas-reliefs are in place, a result of improper restoration. Here are some of them that are easily identifiable.

Rama’s exile

Ramayana Bas-Relief - Rama, Sita and Lakshmana leaving Ayodhya for exile
Rama, Sita and Lakshmana leaving Ayodhya for exile

Rama was one of the four sons of Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya. Being the eldest son, Rama was the legitimate heir to the throne of Ayodhya. Kaikeye, one of his three wives, wanted her son Bharata to be the future king of Ayodhya.

When Dasharatha became ready to hand-over his reign to Rama, Kaikeye invokes two varas (boons) that Dasharatha had given to her when she saved his life during a battle. She asks Dasharatha to make Bharata the crown prince and banish Rama to the forest for 14 years. King Dasharatha reluctantly agrees because he could not go back on his promises. Rama respects his father’s wishes and leaves Ayodhya for the forest along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana.

The bas-relief shown in the image is a narrative depiction of Rama, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana leaving Ayodhya for the exile in the forest. Seated in front of the chariot are Rama and his wife Sita, and in the back is his brother Lakshmana. The people in the back chariot are the courtiers from King Dasharatha’s court bidding farewell to their popular princes.

King Dasharatha’s funeral

Rama's father King Dasaratha's funeral
Rama’s father King Dasaratha’s funeral

Once Rama, Sita and Lakshmana left for exile, King Dasharatha became grief-stricken and died soon after. The bas-relief depicts the funeral ceremony of Dasharatha.

Bharata’s inauguration as the King of Ayodhya

Dancing at the inauguration of Bharata
Dancing at the inauguration of Bharata

Bharata is a half-brother of Rama, the eldest son of Dasharatha and the legal heir to the throne. As mentioned earlier, Bharata’s mother Kaikeyi convinces Dasharatha to make Bharatha the king of Ayodhya and banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years.

The image depicts dancing at the inauguration of Bharata as the king of Ayodhya.

Rama’s time in exile

As mentioned earlier, Rama along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana went into exile in the forest for fourteen years. Some of the bas-reliefs depict events that happened during his exile.

Killing Viradha

Rama killing Viradha, a rakshasa in Dandakaranya
Rama killing Viradha, a rakshasa in Dandakaranya

Rama spent 13 of the 14 years of exile in Dandakaranya, a forest that was home to many noble rishis (sages) as well as evil rakshasas (demons). Viradha was one of the rakshasas attacking the rishis and animals and destroying vegetation in Dandakaranya. No weapons could kill Viradha as he possessed a supernatural power from a vara (boon) he received from Brahma. Because of this vara, he was fearless. As Rama was wandering in Dandakaranya with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, Viradha arrogantly confronts Rama and tries to snatch Sita. Enraged by this act, Rama kills Viradha by burying him since weapons could not kill him. As he lay dying, he morphs into a gandharva, which was his original form, and thanks Rama for releasing him from the curse that made him a rakshasaNote: Gandarvas are a type of demigods who are celestial musicians.

Kidnapping of Rama’s wife Sita

This famous episode in Ramayana happens in the 13th year of Rama’s exile. In this episode, Mareecha, a rakshasa (demon) and maternal uncle of Ravana, assumes the form of a golden deer to distract Rama in order to enable Ravana to kidnap Rama’s wife Sita (Shinta in Java).

Bas-relief in the Shiva Temle depicting Rama slaying Mareecha who assumed the form of a golden deer
Rama slaying Mareecha who assumed the form of a golden deer

The image shows Rama killing the golden deer with his arrow and the body of Mareecha springing out of the golden deer as it starts dying.

According to the story, before Mareecha dies, he imitates Rama’s voice and screams “Oh! Sita, Oh! Lakshmana.”  Troubled by this voice,  Sita pleads with Rama’s brother Laksmana to help Rama. Lakshmana reluctantly agrees, but before he leaves, he draws a line,  famously known as the Lakshmana Rekha, around the hermitage and asks Sita not to cross it under any circumstances.

Ravana kidnapping Sita, an episode from the Hindu epic Ramayana
Ravana kidnapping Sita

Once Lakshmana leaves the hermitage, Ravana disguised as a sadhu (ascetic) comes there and chants “Bhavati Biksham Dehi” (Oh! mother, give me some alms). Seeing the sadhu, Sita goes inside to fetch alms. Ravana tries to follow her into the hermitage but was unable to cross the Lakshmana Rekha. Once Sita returns, he convinces Sita to come out of it to give Ravana the alms. As soon as she crosses the Lakshmana Rekha, Ravana kidnaps her.

Rama killing Kabandha

Kabandha is another rakshasa, Rama and Lakshmana killed during their exile. With the eyes and mouth in his belly, he is a rakshasa with an enormous appetite. The image below shows the bas-relief depicting Rama killing Kabandha.

Rama killing Kabandha
Rama killing Kabandha

This episode happens after Ravan abducts Sita. According to the story, Kabandha finds Rama and Lakshmana wandering in the forest looking for Sita. He tries to catch them with the intention of eating them, but Rama and Lakshmana fight him off and were about to kill him by severing his hands. Realizing that they are not ordinary human beings, he asks for their identity. When he comes to know who they are, he pleads with them to release him from his curse by killing him.

Just like Viradha, Kabandha too was born a gandharva but cursed by Indra to become a carnivorous rakshasa. Once Rama and Lakshmana kill him, he regains his original gandharva body and advises Rama how to find Sita. He suggests Rama befriend Sugriva, a vanara (monkey) who is in power struggle with his brother Vali, and help him to become the King of Kishkindha.

Building Rama Setu (Bridge to Lanka)

Vanara Sene Building Rama Setu - Ramyana bas-relied carved in Prambanan
Vanara Sene Building Rama Setu

After killing Kabandha, Rama continues his journey in search of Sita. As per Kadambha’s advice, he goes southwards to the Rishyamuka Mountain to meet Sugriva, who agrees to help him, provided Rama help him topple his elder brother Vali, the King of Kishkindha.

Rama and Sugriva devise a plan to defeat Vali. As per this plan, Sugriva invites Vali for a duel, and during the fight, Rama waiting on the sidelines kills Vali with an arrow.  See the beautifully carved Vali-Sugriva Fight bas-relief on the Banteay Srei Temple that illustrates this fight.

After the death of Vali, Sugriva becomes the King of Kishkindha. Sugriva’s friend Hanuman goes to Lanka and finds the exact location of Sita.

Eventually, Sugriva builds a vanara sene (army of monkeys) to invade Lanka to get back Sita. Because Lanka is an island, Sugriva builds a bridge to Lanka to ferry the monkey troops. The image below shows the bas-relief depicting the vanara sene led by Sugriva building the bridge to Lanka (Rama Setu).

Other Ramayana bas-reliefs

The bas-reliefs shown in the images below are not easily identifiable.

Bas-reliefs of Ramayana tales

Krishnayana bas-reliefs

Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, is the principal character in the Mahabharata, Bhagavata Purana, and Bhagavata Githa. The Krishnayana reliefs depict stories of Krishna’s childhood and youth, mainly taken from the Bhagavata Purana and are carved in the Vishnu Temple.

Krishna and his stepbrother Balarama lived with his foster parents which is because Krishna’s parents, Vasudeva and Devaki, were jailed by Kamsa, his maternal uncle and the King of Mathura. Having killed Krishna’s six elder siblings, Kamsa was intent on killing Krishna because of a prophecy that foretold the death of Kamsa at the hands of Devaki’s eighth child, Kamsa feared Krishna would kill him.

Krishnayana story
Krishnayana story

Krishna’s foster parents, Nanda and Yashoda, lived a simple life in a place named Gokula. Nanda was the head of cowherds, so both Krishna and Balarama spent their childhood herding cows.

The image shows the bas-relief depicting the life of Krishna during his childhood.

Krishna and Balarama played together and often go to a wooded place named Vrindavana to play with their friends.

Krishna and Balarama killing demons

The image below shows a section of the Krishnayana bas-reliefs with two different stories.

Bas-relief depicting exploits of Krishna and Balarama
Exploits of Krishna and Balarama

The left section depicts Krishna taming Kaliya, a vicious serpent who lived in the Yamuna River and roamed on its banks. According to the legend, Kaliya was poisoning the Yamuna River and creating havoc among the people living in Vrindavana. One day, when Krishna was playing in Vrindavana, the ball falls into Yamuna River. As Krishna dives into the river to retrieve a ball, Kaliya swoops on Krishna and tries to bite him. Krishna overpowers Kaliya and is about to tear apart his jaws to kill him, Kaliya’s wives come begging to Krishna to spare his life. Krishna listens to their pleas and forgives Kaliya, but banishes him and his family to Ramanaka Dweepa, an island far away from Vrindavana.

The story in the right section is about Balarama killing Dhenukasura, an asura (demon) who assumed the form of a donkey. When Dhenukasura attacks Krishna and Balarama for eating fruits in the Talavana Forest, Balarama wheels Dhenukasura’s body around by holding his hind legs and then swings it on the top of trees to kill him.

Krishna killing Vyomasura

Krishnayana story - Krishna killing Vyomasura
Krishna and Balarama killing demons

The bas-relief depicts Krishna killing Vyomasura, a demon who could fly like a bat. According to a legend, Vyomasura disguises as a cowherd with an intention to kidnap Krishna’s cowherd friends. When Krishna notices an unusual face among his friends, he confronts Vyomasura, who then shows his true self. As can be seen from the image, Krishna lifts Vyomasura up by grabbing his legs, smashes him to the ground and kills him.

Krishnayana Story
Krishnayana Story

.As you can see from the image, there are two story panels (likely restored incorrectly because there is no continued carving between the two). The left panel depicts Balarama, Krishna’s stepbrother, carrying his signature weapon, a plow, and the right panel Krishna killing an unidentified rakshasa (demon).

Other bas-reliefs

The Prambanan temples have other bas-reliefs that are not directly related to either Ramayana or Krishnayana. Some of them depict devatas and apsaras. There are also reliefs of Lokapala, which could be Indra or the likeness of King Lokapala.

Lokapala

Lokapala in Sanskrit literally means guardian of the world. Loka means world and pala means guardian. In Hinduism, there is also a notion of guardian of a cardinal direction. A Lokapala may also be a guardian of a direction.

The Shiva Temple has numerous bas-relief frames with Lokapala sculptures. The other temples also have similar bas-reliefs but not as beautiful and expressive.

The Lokapala statues are in the sitting position but with different hand gestures (i.e., mudras) and facial expressions representing moods. The thrones on which Lokapala sits are similar.

The Lokapala statues have similar types of jewelry carved almost in the same position on the body. These include the necklace, thread around the belly, and thread on the left shoulder going over the navel (similar to the yajnopavita, a sacred thread worn by Hindus). Some experts believe that the Lokapala statues portray King Balitung Maha Sambu himself.

Lokapala reliefs in the Shiva Temple

The images below show the Lokapala statues placed in different directions.

Lokapala reliefs in the Vishnu Temple

The images below show Lokapala flanked by the apsaras.

Rishis (Sages)

Saptarishis carved in the Shiva Temple located in Prambanan, Yoogyakarta, Indonesia
Saptarishis carved in the Shiva Temple

The bas-relief depicting different rishis are carved on the outer walls of the temples. The sculptural relief shown below is carved on three frames in the Shiva Temple depicts the seven great sages of ancient India known as saptarishis. Here are the names of these rishis from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
1. Vishwamitra 2. Vasistha 3. Jamadagni 4. Kashyapa 5. Atri 6. Bharadwaja. 7. Gautama Maharishi. The other Puranic texts have a different set of names.

Astronomically, Saptarishis represent seven stars of the constellation of Ursa Major, commonly known as the Big Dipper. The legend of seven great sages exists in many ancient cultures, including the Greek, Chinese, and Egyptian cultures.

The sage at the center is most-likely Vishwamitra. As you can see from the image, Vishwamitra and some of the sage are holding japamalas with their right hands. A trishula (trident) is behind Vishwamitra with a kamandala (water jug) hung on its prong. It appears they are engaged in a debate.

Here are the reliefs of other rishis:

Lion flanked by Kinnaras

Lion flanked by Kinnaras
Lion flanked by Kinnaras

Most visitors to Prambanan notice the beautiful and a detailed carving as shown on the image below. There are similar carvings on the outer walls of many temples.

At the center of this carving is the statue of a lion in the niche, and on either side of the lion is a kinnara couple (male and female) standing under the Kalpavriksha (a.k.a Kalphataru), the divine tree that fulfills wishes. Kinnara female is known as kinnaree. The significance and meaning of this unusual but beautiful and detailed carving are not well understood.

Kinnara

In Southeast Asian Hindu mythology, a kinnara is half-human and half-bird, whereas, in Indian Hindu mythology, a kinnara is a half-human and half-horse. Kinnaras are celestial musicians and live as a couple.

According to Mahabharata, a kinnara couple is a husband and wife forever, and their love is everlasting. No third person or creature can ever share their love. Because of this reason, they can never become parents, therefore, cannot have offspring.

Kalpavriksha

According to Hindu mythology, Kalpavrisksha is a divine tree that fulfills the desires of people. It is a by-product of the Samudra Manthana (Churning of the Ocean of Milk). See the Samudra Manthana bas-relief in the Angkor Wat Temple. Indra, who was in the middle of the Samudra Manthana, took this tree and planted in his garden.

Other lion carvings

In some of the lion carvings, the kinnaras are replaced by animals such as rabbits. See the images below.

Related Pages
Prambanan, Borobudur, Bali, Indonesia
Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat Bas-Reliefs, Banteay Srei, Cambodia

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